Meet the other Olsen sister

gifted Elizabeth Olsen is seen with her on-screen sister, in this still from ‘Martha...’

The 22-year-old actress — she’s the younger sister of the child stars turned clothing designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — had the most fashionable of excuses for the delay: Karl Lagerfeld. The Chanel designer had been shooting her for a coffee table book, and the photo session had gone long. She modelled an oversize classic Chanel tweed jacket for him. “I didn’t get to keep it,” she said, laughing as she pointed to her own nondescript sweater and T-shirt.

She may have been tardy for the interview, but Olsen, nicknamed Lizzie, is running way ahead of schedule on her career. She has starred in five movies, all independent films, in little more than a year, her first recent release being Martha Marcy May Marlene. It is an unsettling psychological drama in which Olsen plays the tricky role of an emotionally troubled young woman who, after a sojourn as a cult member on a remote farm in the Catskills, takes refuge with her older sister and brother-in-law at their upscale, lakeside vacation house.

Traumatised by chilling memories from her past and ill at ease in her present, Martha is a woman on the verge, unable to distinguish between what is real and what is in her head, and equally unable to behave appropriately. She crawls into bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they’re making love and skinny-dips in the lake in broad daylight, seemingly unable to comprehend why either action would cause offense.
The movie was a standout at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, and Olsen, who also starred in a second film at the festival, Silent House (an art-house horror film scheduled for 2012), impressed critics and industry insiders alike, and was quickly tagged the “it girl” of the festival.

“You had the sense that here was somebody who was arriving on the scene who can make a difference,” said Ty Burr, movie critic for The Boston Globe, in a phone interview. “It helps that she’s pretty and blond but she also has talent.”

Sean Durkin, director and screenwriter of Martha, said he wanted an unknown for the challenging central role in his debut film. “Lizzie read the first scene and, immediately, there was something different happening,” he said. “She could convey a lot without doing anything. There was so much going on behind her eyes.” Partway through her audition, Durkin texted his producer that they’d found their leading lady.

The unmoored character she plays in Martha seemingly couldn’t be further from Olsen herself, who in person comes across as grounded, friendly and bright.

John Hawkes, who plays the manipulative cult leader, said: “You can’t help but fall for her. There is an openness and a joy about her, but tempered with street smarts and an intelligence that’s rare for someone her age.”

Equally smitten is the veteran director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), who cast Olsen in her first movie, the coming comedy Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, featuring Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener.

“Nothing ever struck me as false with her,” he said of Olsen’s acting. “She has this rare knack – the same as Robert Duvall – she listens wonderfully. She has a scene where Jane is telling her about a sculpture she has made. Jane does all the talking. Lizzie doesn’t say anything and yet you’re fascinated by her reaction.”

Impressively, Olsen landed this string of films — still to come are Red Lights, a supernatural drama featuring Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, and Liberal Arts, a comic drama with Zac Efron and Josh Radnor — while attending New York University, where she’s a senior majoring in theater at the Tisch School of the Arts. She took a year off from college to shoot the films, pretty much going straight from one film to the next.

Elizabeth Olsen’s earliest acting credits came in a handful of brief cameos in her sisters’ popular made-for-video movies.

She studied acting even before college but says that despite her sisters’ success, she always knew she wanted to be an adult actor rather than a child star. Her reasoning? She watched, loved and aspired to be in classic movie musicals – Frank Sinatra, in his Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls period, was her first crush — and she rarely saw kids popping up in them. Today, she still loves Pal Joey but said her own singing wasn’t strong enough for musical roles.

But theatre remains an abiding interest. Her NYU course work included classes at the affiliated Atlantic Theater Company. She landed understudy roles in plays off Broadway (2008’s Dust) and on (2009’s Impressionism), which helped her secure an agent, who put her up for the movie roles. “I never got to go on,” she said of the understudy jobs; rather, while waiting backstage, she wrote school papers on her laptop.

 Besides getting more movie roles, Olsen said she was eager to land a meaty theatre role. Her dream? “I want to play Ophelia in Hamlet, Masha in Three Sisters and, really, really later in life, I’d love to play Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey,” she said.

Obviously, she is not looking to become the next rom-com princess. Career longevity, along with challenging roles, is her goal. “I’m not interested in instant gratification,” she said. “And I think the only way you can do that is to make choices that are representative of where you are and don’t get caught up in what other people want you to do.”

Beresford said he believed Olsen could have any career she wants. “She’s going to get every role she goes for,” he said, likening her to Cate Blanchett, whom he directed in her first major movie, Paradise Road (1997). “I would definitely put Lizzie in that class.”

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